[Note: The following is the prepared text for a sermonette given at the Portland congregation of the United Church of God on Sabbath, January 5, 2019.]
Imagine the following scene. You are on the third floor of the Washington County Courthouse in downtown Hillsboro, Oregon, or someplace like it. In the midst of a wood-paneled, somewhat old-fashioned courtroom filled with dusty and dry legal codes, you are sitting behind a table slumped in your chair dressed in an orange jumpsuit. Your attorney is seated beside you, and has been wearing you down for the last few minutes convincing you that your case is hopeless and that you should accept the deal being offered by the court because to go to trial would only be worse. At the other table to your right there are various people representing the state and county courts, attorneys and even a volunteer court-appointed special advocate, all of whom agree that the impending trial would go badly for you, and there is a list of unpleasant questions you are about to be asked and many pages of paperwork detailing your wicked deeds. Having finally agreed to accept the stipulation offered by the court just before the trial is about to begin, the judge comes in, everyone stands, and he asks you questions, including the question of whether you have been coerced into accepting this deal or whether you did so freely. Is this our picture of God’s judgment?
To be sure, there are pictures of this sort of judgment in the Bible. But we would greatly mistake the character of God as a judge if this is the only mental picture we have of God’s judgment. So long as we only see ourselves as defendants in the courtroom of God being brought to task for our misdeeds and being coerced into accepting painful and unpleasant plea deals in lieu of even harsher judgment for our flaws and errors and mistakes, we will have a decidedly negative view of God’s judgment. If we see God’s role as a judge only through the lens of our contemporary experience with criminal law or administrative law, we will likely not have a very positive view of divine justice, and we will be inclined to seek out God as a judge as little as possible and have no enthusiasm for being involved in the heavenly court we read of frequently in the scriptures. No matter how often we hear of God as a judge from the pulpit, we will think of God’s court as a terrifying and coercive and unpleasant place if we only see ourselves as defendants answering for our own sins and crimes before that court.
It should be noted, though, that the Bible frequently looks upon the judgment of God as a positive thing. And although we do not have time to look at all of these passages relating to the more positive side of God’s court of judgment, let us at least look at enough verses that we can at least see the scope of this positive view of divine judgment, so that we can correct any misguided and negatively biased views we have towards it. Let us first turn to Psalm 43:1-5. This short psalm, Psalm 43, one of the psalms of the Sons of Korah, reads in its entirety as follows: “Vindicate me, O God, and plead my cause against an ungodly nation; oh, deliver me from the deceitful and unjust man! For You are the God of my strength; why do You cast me off? Why do I go mourning because of the oppression of the enemy? Oh, send out Your light and Your truth! Let them lead me; let them bring me to Your holy hill and to Your tabernacle. Then I will go to the altar of God, to God my exceeding joy; and on the harp I will praise You, o God, my God. Why are you cast down, O my soul? And why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall yet praise Him, the help of my countenance and my God.” We are familiar with this psalm from our hymnal, and the title of this psalm by Dwight Armstrong is “Righteous Judge.” Far from having a negative view of God as a judge, the psalmist seeks out God’s judgment, and feels distraught that God has not yet decided to judge a case in which the psalmist expects to be vindicated in his (or her cause) against slandering and oppressive enemies. Far from dreading God’s judgment, the psalmist pleads for it and maintains hope that this judgment will come, after which the psalmist will rejoice and praise God’s justice. Is this our view of God’s judgment? Do we long for the heavenly court to be in session so that we may be vindicated and that those who have abused and slandered us may be brought to justice?
If we look elsewhere in the Psalms, we see the same picture of God’s judgment in Psalm 7:8-11. Here too the psalmist, in this case King David, longs for divine justice and expects vindication from the heavenly court. Psalm 7:8-11 reads: “The Lord shall judge the peoples; judge me, O Lord, according to my righteousness, and according to my integrity within me. Oh, let the wickedness of the wicked come to an end, but establish the just; for the righteous God tests the hearts and minds. My defense is of God, who saves the upright in heart. God is a just judge, and God is angry with the wicked every day.” Here again we see David longing for justice, confident that his cause will prevail in the heavenly court and expects to be fully vindicated as a godly believer living in integrity. Though not perfect, David knew that he was a righteous and godly man and he prayed for divine judgment against the wicked so that their wickedness would cease and so that the cause of the just would be upheld and supported by the just judge in the heavens above. Do we have similar confidence that we would be vindicated by a just judge?
Nor is this a viewpoint limited to the psalms alone. We find a similar situation portrayed in the Gospels in Luke 18:1-8, in what is either called the Parable of the Unjust Judge or the Parable of the Persistent Widow. In Luke 18:1-8 we read: “Then He spoke a parable to them, that men always ought to pray and not lose heart, saying: “There was in a certain city a judge who did not fear God nor regard man. Now there was a widow in that city; and she came to him, saying, ‘Get justice for me from my adversary.’ And he would not for a while; but afterward he said within himself, ‘Though I do not fear God nor regard man, yet because this widow troubles me I will avenge her, lest by her continual coming she weary me.’” Then the Lord said, “Hear what the unjust judge said. And shall God not avenge His own elect who cry out day and night to Him, though He bears long with them? I tell you that He will avenge them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will He really find faith on the earth?”” Here again we have a situation where someone longs and pleads and begs for court to be in session. The persistent widow has no fear of the heavenly courtroom, but she longs for justice against her enemies, and wears down through her continual coming and continual nagging a judge that has no regard for either God or man. In this all-too-believable example, we see that Jesus Christ compares God to a judge who can be persuaded to act through the persistent prayers of His servants, and that He expects His servants to pray out for judgment to come, implying that His servants have nothing to fear and a lot to gain from that judgment.
Why does the Bible seek to present God’s judgment as something that believers should look forward to? Why, instead of dreading and fearing being brought into court to be wheedled and induced, worn down and coerced into accepting an unfavorable plea bargain, does God want us to seek out God’s judgment and pray for it earnestly and passionately with the confident expectation that we will be fully vindicated by God’s judgment? A big part of the reason why is that God expects us to be judges, and so we ought not to fear a divine justice system in which we will play an honorable and prominent part. For our final scripture in this message, let us turn to 1 Corinthians 6:1-5. In the midst of his discussion about some of the failings of the Corinthians, Paul has something to say that is deeply relevant to our own destiny as judges in God’s legal system. 1 Corinthians 6:1-5 reads: “Dare any of you, having a matter against another, go to law before the unrighteous, and not before the saints? Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world will be judged by you, are you unworthy to judge the smallest matters? Do you not know that we shall judge angels? How much more, things that pertain to this life? If then you have judgments concerning things pertaining to this life, do you appoint those who are least esteemed by the church to judge? I say this to your shame. Is it so, that there is not a wise man among you, not even one, who will be able to judge between his brethren?” In our litigious society, we too as brethren may be quick to seek justice before unbelievers, and may not be very quick to try out the wisdom and discernment and justice of our fellow brethren and believers, airing the dirty laundry of our disagreements and disputes before outsiders who are likely to think far worse of our character and integrity for witnessing the ugliness of our disputes before them. Are we like the Corinthians in that we lack wise and fair-minded people who would settle disputes justly and fairly? Are we doing a good job of preparing for the role of judges that God wishes to give to us in the future in heavenly courts? If not, let us take the time we have as an opportunity to learn how to judge justly and prepare for the justice that God wishes us to deliver as part of His justice system.
Why is it that we would fear the judgment of God instead of seeking it, not only so that we would receive justice from God, but also that we may receive the experience of being in the court of heaven so that we may gain confidence in becoming judges there ourselves? Surely, whatever fear we have as of condemnation in the court of heaven does not come from an accurate reading of the Bible. There is, after all, an entire book called Judges in which those men and at least one woman were raised up among an ungodly people, but they were not called to condemn Israel for their sins but rather to deliver them from oppression. And if wicked and carnal physical Israel could expect judges to deliver them and vindicate them from the sufferings that came about as a result of their own sins, can we who strive to live righteous and godly lives expect any less vindication from the high court of heaven? Do we have the persistence of the widow in seeking justice from God as she did from a corrupt judge? Do we have the confidence of David that our cause will prevail in God’s courtroom? Are we preparing ourselves to not only be successful parties in the court of heaven but to don the robes of office as judges there ourselves? If this is not our view of God’s judgment, let us work so that it may be so, so that we may have an accurate view of God’s justice system and our own place within it.